Red Light Women of the Rocky Moun­tains

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

by Jan MacK­ell, Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Press, 458 pages Women who of­fer their sex­ual fa­vors for fi­nan­cial gain have been re­garded with wildly vary­ing views in dif­fer­ent eras and cul­tures. Tem­ple pros­ti­tu­tion was an in­te­gral part of wor­ship in an­cient re­li­gions. As a class, the het­aerae of clas­si­cal Greece made their mark with wit, po­etry, and philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sion as well as love­mak­ing. The cour­te­sans of Ja­pan’s Edo pe­riod, the oiran, were re­garded as work­ing spe­cial­ists, with no stigma at­tached to their ac­tiv­i­ties.

But in 19th-and early 20th-cen­tu­ryWestern cul­tures, es­pe­cially Vic­to­rian Eng­land and Amer­ica, “fallen women” were con­sid­ered the low­est of the low, no mat­ter their so­cial stand­ing. As An­thony Trol­lope has an out­raged fa­ther de­claim in The Vicar of Bull­hamp­ton, when his stray­ing daugh­ter begs to be al­lowed to re­turn to the fam­ily home, “In all the whole world, there is no thing so vile as a har­lot.” As for most “hon­est” women’s opin­ion of their soiled-dove sis­ters in those days, the less said the bet­ter.

This fine book of­fers a dif­fer­ent look at doxy­dom dur­ing the open­ing up of the Amer­i­can West and af­ter. Fron­tier cul­tures are notably tol­er­ant or at least ac­cept­ing, and in those tough and danger­ous days, the lo­cal madam was of­ten a per­son of great con­se­quence, not to men­tion wealth. In the best cases, her girls were both well-treated and pro­fes­sional, though ex­cep­tions cer­tainly occurred. The drunken slat­tern who robbed or mur­dered her cus­tomers was not pure fic­tion.

Jan MacK­ell re­searched her sub­ject thor­oughly and writes about it well, ex­plor­ing an un­usual topic with a nice mix of schol­ar­ship and gusto. She dis­cusses the so­ci­etal as­pects of pros­ti­tu­tion and how it af­fected moral at­mos­phere from the early 1800s on into the mid-20th cen­turies; but she does so in con­text of the open ranges and high peaks of the ar­eas in and around the Rock­ies and in con­text of many in­di­vid­ual women whose records she has found.

In this sur­vey of broth­els, red-light dis­tricts, and those smaller apart­ments (rather than houses) of assig­na­tion known as cribs, MacK­ell ranges wide. She starts off with a chap­ter on “The Pi­o­neer­ing of Pros­ti­tu­tion” to set the stage — or make the bed, so to speak— and shows how the mostly male rest­less push west­ward fu­eled the rise of both am­a­teur and pro­fes­sional pros­ti­tu­tion. Us­ing ap­pro­pri­ate nick­names from sex­ual his­tory for fallen flow­ers, she then dis­cusses “Ama­zons of Ari­zona,” “Cour­te­sans of Colorado,” “Il­licit Ladies of Idaho,” “Madams and Oth­er­Women of Mon­tana,” “Nu­bians of New Mex­ico,” “The Un­do­ing of Utah’s Soiled Doves,” and “WickedWomen ofWy­oming.” Her fi­nal chap­ter is tan­ta­liz­ingly ti­tled “Where Did They All Go?,” and you may be sur­prised at some of the an­swers.

For lo­cal read­ers, New Mex­ico’s madams and girls will be of spe­cial in­ter­est. The leg­endary Doña Tules of Santa Fe is here, as well as the fas­ci­nat­ing Lizzie McGrath of Al­bu­querque and that as­tute Sil­ver City busi­ness­woman Mil­lie Cusey, who owned broth­els in Lordsburg, Dem­ing, and Hur­ley; a ranch in Are­nas Val­ley; prop­erty in El Paso; and a bordello in Laramie. An or­phan, she came to New Mex­ico in the 1920s and, as MacK­ell wryly notes, af­ter work­ing as a Har­vey Girl, learned “that pros­ti­tu­tion was a much more vi­able way to make money.”

It was danger­ous, though. Cusey’s vi­o­lent run-ins with some of her many cus­tomers, sev­eral lovers, and one of her three husbands were per­ilous to flesh and bone. MacK­ell cites one in­stance when hus­band num­ber two, Ben Harker, stabbed her in the leg as she slept. Cusey pulled the blade out of the wound, thrust it into her spouse’s back, and as she chased Harker down the street yelled to a neigh­bor, “Mr. Tru­jillo! Mr. Tru­jillo! Catch that thiev­ing son-of-a-bitch! He stole my knife!” Harker had also bro­ken one of Cusey’s arms ear­lier, MacK­ell re­ports, af­ter she had tried to drown him in a sep­tic tank. In­ci­den­tally, Cusey— who died at 81 in 1993— once an­swered the where-did-they-go ques­tion thusly: “How can we charge for the same thing the col­lege girls give away for free?”

Be­sides the telling nar­ra­tives of the wellplot­ted chap­ters, there are 81 pho­tos or im­ages — the one of the very plump and pleas­ing Lou Bunch of Cen­tral City, Colorado, is a gem— as well as sev­eral ap­pen­dices, a detailed set of notes that also func­tions as a bib­li­og­ra­phy, and a co­pi­ous in­dex. This book is highly rec­om­mended in­deed for its rare sub­ject, its flu­ent treat­ment, and the en­joy­ably in­for­ma­tive writ­ing.

— Craig Smith

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.